Miles Ahead

Review by Willard Manus

Don Cheadle not only plays Miles Davis in MILES AHEAD but directs, co-writes and co-produces the film. The Oscar-nominated actor (Crash) also helped raise the money for MILES AHEAD by launching a fund-raising campaign on IndieGoGo. “It actually felt right that we used a social platform to complete the film, since Miles was someone who made ‘social music,’” said Cheadle in an interview.

The result of Cheadle’s labor of love, the low-budget MILES AHEAD, is one of the best jazz films ever made, a brutally honest and vivid portrait of the late iconic trumpeter Miles Davis. Cheadle, currently starring in the TV series House of Lies, brings Miles to life in convincing fashion, capturing not just his lean, intense look but his raspy, profane speech. With the help of Wynton Marsalis, he was also able to match Miles’ fingering on the trumpet, though the soundtrack music was all Miles’, of course. “I learned all the solos for the performance scenes and the band behind me learned how to play Miles Ahead. I felt we needed to learn how to play it in order to understand it. That’s me playing and the band too, only you’re not hearing our sound.

”MILES AHEAD is eons away from being a typical bio-pic. Rather than chronicling the progress of Miles’ life in linear fashion, the film mostly takes place in the 1970s with only brief flashbacks to earlier times. The story unfolds in a swift, hard-driving way and is meant to be as entertaining as a “rock and roll film” (Cheadle’s words).

There is violence and blood galore, with a set-piece car chase that would not have been out of place in The French Connection. The idea was to keep pushing the envelope, be as original and daring as possible.

When we first meet Miles he is in a fallow period, holed up in his cluttered New York apartment, beset by chronic pain from a deteriorating hip, his creativity numbed by coke and booze, mind haunted by ghosts from the past. Into his life steps an invented character: Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor), a Rolling Stones reporter desperate for a juicy story. The two of them clash at first but eventually become buddies, especially when the plot calls for Miles to try and track down a crooked music promoter (played with sneering gusto by Michael Stuhlbarg) who has stolen valuable master tapes from him. A young, wanna-be jazz trumpeter (Lakeith Lee Stanfield) is also involved in the heist and its violent aftermath.

Another important character is Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a fictional portrait of Miles’ third wife, the former Katherine Dunham dancer, Frances Davis. Their passionate relationship, which lasted eight years, is explored in depth and gives the film some badly needed warmth and love. Frances, we learn, served as Miles’ muse, the voice that he lost and is trying to recapture, but eventually she walked out on him when his infidelities and physical abuse proved too much to bear.

Miles Davis, as the film clearly shows, was a complex and mercurial human being, one we’d probably classify as bi-polar today. One minute he’d flare up and take a swing at you, the next he’d crack a joke and slap palms with you. But above all, he was a musical genius who had a major impact on the jazz world. MILES AHEAD excels in showing just how important were his accomplishments; the film is packed with musical excerpts from just about every period of Miles’ life, ranging from jazz and rock to funk and electric. The topper comes in the film’s closing moments, when a big band featuring Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spaulding blows out all the jams on one of Miles’ tunes.

Cheadle does a remarkable job in the film. He captures Miles so accurately and convincingly that you quickly forget he’s an actor and not the real man--a man who, as Gary Giddins put it, “contained multitudes.”